Saturday, April 08, 2017

The laugh that almost cost me my career

It was our first staff job. My partner, David Isaacs and I had been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW as “term writers.” That’s the lowest rung on the ladder. Term writers didn’t even get a credit. I don’t think there are term writers today. Anyway, we didn’t care. We were thrilled. Not only were we on an actual show but it was an MTM show. This was the mid ‘70’s and MTM back then was Camelot. The best shows (MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, BOB NEWHART) and the best writers with the ultimate mensch, Grant Tinker serving as King Arthur. We felt special and honored just driving on the lot.

We were hired by showrunners Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met. The rest of the staff was Gary David Goldberg (who created FAMILY TIES) and Hugh Wilson (who created WKRP IN CINCINNATI and directed FIRST WIVES CLUB). We were very green and understood that our main function the first few weeks was to just hang back and learn.

THE TONY RANDALL SHOW was a multi-camera sitcom, shot before a live studio audience. So the process was the actors would rehearse all day, the writers would come down to the stage at about 4:00, watch a runthrough, scribble notes, and return to the office to rewrite.

I found the first few runthroughs somewhat daunting. I was dutifully marking up my script, trying to size up what worked and what didn’t on the fly – a skill I had never needed before.

After a couple of runthroughs Tom took me aside and gently suggested I should laugh during the actors’ performances. It helps the cast know what’s funny. I had been concentrating on the script so intently I never even thought about that. I thanked him and assured him I would laugh in the future.

Tony Randall played a judge in the show and the next week’s script was about a convict he had sentenced to prison who was now released. There was reason to believe he might want to take revenge on Tony. It was a funny script written by Earl Pomerantz.

Side bar: Among the many things I learned from Earl over the years was sprinkling funny things in the stage direction from time to time. I had never seen that before. In this script there was a scene in his home and to be safe he had beefed up security. This is what Earl wrote: “You wanna see locks? Look at that door.” Readers tend to skip over stage direction, but if you reward them with a joke or two they’re more likely to stay with it. The great Billy Wilder was once asked, “should directors also be writers?” to which he said, “No. They should be readers.” End of side bar.

We went down for the runthrough. For the first few scenes I laughed along with the other writers, getting into the swing of it. But then came that scene in his house. Zane Lasky, who played uber earnest law clerk Mario Lanza took it upon himself to be Tony’s bodyguard. There was a noise and overzealous Zane was supposed to pull out a gun. The gun he produced was a cannon. Larger than Dirty Harry’s.

Well, that just slayed me. I didn’t just laugh; I was in hysterics. You know how something strikes you so funny that you just can’t stop laughing? That was me over this one small sight gag. The actors stopped acting, everyone on the set was looking at me quizzically. I was terribly embarrassed and yet I still could not stop laughing. Tom and Jay were glaring at me. There were tears rolling down my face and my sides hurt. Eventually I calmed down and the scene resumed. Now I was afraid to laugh at anything for fear that it would set me off again. So picture this funny scene, all the writers are laughing and enjoying and I’m sitting there like a statue biting my lip. And you know how infectious laughter is. I was sweating trying to hold it in.

As we walked back to the office (in silence) I decided I better kick ass during the rewrite. After that display I was on very thin ice. So I became a joke machine that night, pitching lines left and right. A lot of them actually made it into the script and I redeemed myself (for another week). When people ask what motivates writers and where does the humor come from – the answer is often FEAR.

The night that episode was filmed the gun gag got a huge laugh from the audience. I wanted to turn to Tom Patchett and say, “See?” but decided I really liked this job.

The moral here to all young writers: When going to runthroughs laugh unless you find something really funny.


Brad Apling said...

This is precious; both in the story setup and the advice.

Roger Owen Green said...

Funny stuff!

Chris Gumprich said...

This may be a Friday Question that you've already answered a few times, but this post made me wonder -- you're an ex-disc jockey working for MTM on a show with Hugh Wilson. Why didn't you ever write for WKRP IN CINCINNATI? It seems natural.

ScarletNumber said...

How did you like working with Jerry Seinfeld's father?

Anonymous said...

I remember Lasky's character - correct me if I'm wrong, but part of his shtick was someone, and Randall is the one I remember, would ask him upon introduction, "Mario Lanza? Just like... " and Lasky's comeback was "like who?" Being one of the squarest 12 or 13 year olds in our neighbourhood (and with parents of a certain vintage, I always thought that line hilarious, but meant nothing to my pals...